Life saver: the biomedical engineering professor behind a radical wound dressing receives Alberta's highest honour

Robert Burrell's inventiveness has saved countless lives. And he's driven to continue helping others through his biomedical engineering innovations.

Richard Cairney - 10 October 2019

(Edmonton) Robert Burrell was touring burn units at Australian hospitals in October 2002 when victims of the Bali terrorist bombings began to arrive in emergency rooms. Harried medical personnel invited Burrell into operating theatres at the Royal Brisbane Hospital to provide technical advice on the use of Acticoat, a silver-based wound dressing he invented. The dressing was used on the worst-injured patients, those with burns almost covering their entire bodies.
The revolutionary dressing saved lives.
"It was almost overwhelming to see the dressing being used under such tragic conditions, but there was a tremendous satisfaction in seeing the results of its use," says Burrell. "Many people can alter the bottom line for a company, but very few people can alter the outcomes of people's lives-I am lucky to be one of the few."
The dressing was the first commercial therapeutic application of nanotechnology in the world. Now used around the world, Acticoat has antimicrobial properties and speeds healing and is considered one of the most radical advances in wound-care history.
Acticoat uses nanocrystalline silver technology, speeding healing remarkably and fighting off infections. By his own estimate, Burrell says the dressing has saved millions of lives. He even used it to treat a horse that had been severely injured by a large predator on his farm near Edmonton.
Today, Burrell is advancing biomedical engineering in new ways, developing a hand-held diagnostic tool to identify the type of infection in patients immediately-eliminating unnecessary antibiotic use.
A chemical and materials engineering professor, Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Biomaterials, and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta, Burrell invented Acticoat in 1995 while working for Westaim Corporation's Nucryst Pharmaceuticals.
He is one of the recipients of the 2019 Alberta Order of Excellence-the highest honour the province of Alberta bestows upon its citizens.
Burrell has been nationally and internationally recognized for his work and has received numerous awards including the 2009 ENCANA Principal Innovation Award from The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation for the development of Acticoat, the 2009 ASM International - ASM Engineering Materials Achievement Award for the development of technology and manufacturing methods for silver based nano-structured antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory coatings with significant and wide ranging clinical and patient benefits; and the 2008 World Union of Wound Healing Society Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to wound healing around the world.